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Jonson and Alice Chen: The new generation for 99 Ranch

Alice and Jonson Chen
Alice and Jonson Chen, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Nov. 8.
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99 Ranch is so much more than just another grocery store. It’s a mecca — an oasis where members of the Chinese-speaking diaspora have indulged in the flavors of their heritage for four decades and a convenient place to snag live fish and acquire specifically Asian produce such as wispy chayote shoot tendrils and fat, nutty stalks of celtuce.

Discover the changemakers who are shaping every cultural corner of Los Angeles. This week we bring you The Connectors, who understand that power doesn’t travel in a straight line and know how to connect the dots. Come back each Sunday for another installment.

Like many Asian Americans in Southern California, Alice and Jonson Chen grew up frequenting the supermarket chain. The difference was the front-row seats they had to it all. Their father, Roger, an immigrant from Taiwan, started the supermarket in 1984, keeping an extraordinarily low profile as the business grew from a stand-alone ethnic grocery store in Westminster to an affordable Asian American icon. After years of cutting their teeth in corporate America, the Chen siblings — both Ivy League business school graduates — took the reins.

Where Roger started out specifically catering to a Chinese-speaking clientele in Southern California and importing goods from his native Taiwan, his children have their eyes set on broader horizons. Under their stewardship, 99 Ranch has become much more pan-Asian in its offerings and global in its sourcing.

Jonson and Alice Chen
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Alice, 46, the chief executive, oversees the supermarket’s daily coast-to-coast operations. Jonson, 50, the company’s chairman, is in charge of its expansion; he maintains a database on where Chinese-speaking communities are growing the fastest in the United States. With 58 stores across 11 states, 99 Ranch is now one of the largest Asian supermarket chains in the country.

Like their father, Alice and Jonson actively avoid the spotlight. But on the rare occasion when they do emerge to talk about themselves, the conversation is always focused on the family business. They say that the 99 in 99 Ranch is a homophone in Mandarin for longevity and that the ranch represents freshness. “As if straight from a ranch,” Alice said. “The double meaning is 99%. It’s almost perfect, but not quite. We’re always trying to be better. It’s very Asian. No one is 100%.”

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